Sunday, July 14, 2019

Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art by Michael Shnayerson

I am slightly ashamed to admit that for the longest time, I claimed not to like modern art because all I knew about modern art came from representations by its critics and I was thinking that all of it was just blank canvases splashed with paint, or clear plastic glasses filled with dish detergent and a single floating golf ball, with titles like Existentialism #2 or Cry, Aphrodite. Of course, I realize now that that's a bit like saying that you abhor the romance novel because you've seen people making fun of Twilight. Everything is unflattering and exaggerated in parody.

I am now a regular visitor of Modern Art museums and enjoy (some of) the pieces quite a bit. Modern Art, like everything else, covers a fairly broad spectrum, and there is something for everyone. You might see a blank canvas splashed with paint, or a plastic glass filled with dish detergent and golf balls, but you might also see statues made from unconventional materials, neon lights bent into interesting shapes, poetry told via an LED marquee, or comic book art representations of everyday objects.

I actually applied for an ARC of this book because the cover design reminded me of the art of Dan Flavin, an artist who used neon lights as his medium (and whose work I really enjoy). You can think of BOOM as being an epic love letter penned to modern art, while also acknowledging its flaws. For example, I am a huge fan of Adam Conover's Adam Ruins Everything series, and one of his videos is called "How the Fine Art Market is a Scam," which mentions many shady tactics employed by gallery owners and dealers in this book, such as driving up art sale prices to inflate the price of collections, or being choosy with customers and venues to build up the gallery brand.

The focus on the book, however, is on the artists, dealers, and gallery owners themselves, specifically Leo Castelli and Larry Gagosian, and the rise and fall of their careers. Their careers intersected with many artists, though, so there are a lot of miniature biographies on these artists and their opuses within the greater ebb and flow of modern art's popularity, beginning with the abstract expressionists, and ending with installation and outsider art, and how social media has begun to change how consumers of art interact with it (Vox has a great video on this called "How 'Instagram traps' are changing art museums" and it features one of the artists in here, Yayaoi Kusama, who you might know as "the dot lady").

Because I've been to the museum so many times, this was a deeply personal read for me because it mentioned so many of my favorite artists, like Liechtenstein, Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Yayoi Kusama, Frank Stella, and Dan Flavin, to name a few. It was so amazing to be able to see where they came from, how they sold their art, and even get a tiny glimpse into their personalities. I also kind of liked how the modern art world was portrayed as being like a secret club. Indie publishing and book blogging felt like that in the early 2010s, when online commercial book stuff was just taking off and not as many people were into it yet, so everyone kind of knew and interacted with everyone.

The only downside is that this book is very long, but it's beautifully written and the huge amount of research the author did shines through every page. By the time I finished the book, I wanted to go to an art museum right now. Shnayerson really captures the positives and the negatives of the art world, neatly encapsulated within the brief (but thorough) history he provides, and I really liked that a lot.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review!   

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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